Progressive activists have put a good deal of energy into preparing for an anticipated House-Senate conference committee, in which the distinct health-care reform bills enacted by the two chambers would be reconciled. The theory has been that, in the conference process, it might be possible to strengthen the especially weak language and policies of the Senate bill.
But what if there is no conference committee? What if key players in the House and Senate come up with a scheme that would allow them to "work things out" among themselves without having to empower a conference committee? What if they simply scrap the freewheeling and potentially difficult to control negotiation over the character and content of the final bill?
Then pressure from progressives could be without consequence, as all authority would rest with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, and a few of their closest compatriots. And the insurance industry and other lobbying interests that offer congressional Democrats the prospect of substantial 2010 election funding would only have to deal with House and Senate leaders who are already thinking -- make that, already worrying -- about the fall and who have set themselves up as conduits for campaign cash.
Could such a scenario play out? Absolutely.
Indeed, every indication suggests that congressional Democratic leaders are preparing either to go with a so-called "ping-pong" approach that would have the House simply take up the Senate bill -- or, more likely, to a strategy that would have differences between the two bills sorted out at the leadership level and agree to a set of changes that would be "packaged into a single amendment to the bill."
This is being pitched by some Democratic insiders -- and their allies in the punditocracy -- as a tactic that would exclude Republicans from the process. And there might be some appeal to getting the "party of no" out of the way. But a scheme that excludes right-wingers who are opposed to any change is also likely to exclude progressives who want real change.
Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raul Grijalva, D-Arizona, who has argued for using the conference process to strengthen the weak Senate measure – by restoring a government-run public option as an alternative to profiteering by private insurers, among other initiatives – expressed frustration with the latest development in the reform fight.
"I am disappointed that there will be no formal conference process by which various constituencies can impact the discussion," said Grijalva. "I have not been approached about my concerns with the Senate bill, and I will be raising those at the Democratic Caucus meeting on Thursday. I and other progressives saw a conference as a means to improve the bill and have a real debate, and now with this behind-the-scenes approach, we're concerned even more."
Grijalva concern about the closing down of the process is appropriate.
In 2006, when Republicans controlled both chambers of the Congress, they employed a "manager's amendment" scheme that, in the words of The Hill newspaper sought to "go around the formal conference committee and instead use closed-door negotiations to work out the differences between the House and Senate legislation."
Reid objected, declaring that: "Sometimes Democrats complain and sometimes Republicans complain -- whoever is in the minority here. Well, we didn't get enough consultation; you cut us out of the process. But at least you had a group of Democrats and Republicans in the process. Here, you have one person making a decision as to what is going to be in the managers' amendment."
Reid was right then.
He's wrong now.